Nation & World

Obama won't send witness to Senate to explain legality of drone war

The Obama administration does not intend to send a witness to testify at a Senate hearing next week on the legality of the U.S. targeted killing program, the White House said Wednesday.

The decision illustrates the limits of President Barack Obama’s pledge in his State of the Union speech on Feb. 12 to provide greater transparency into top-secret drone operations that have killed thousands of suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee was to have held a hearing Tuesday on the legality of targeted killings, those who can be targeted and the creation of a “transparent legal framework for the use of drones.” The session, however, was postponed until April 23 to allow more time for the White House to agree to send a witness.

That effort, however, appeared to have fallen through.

“We do not currently plan to send a witness to this hearing and have remained in close contact with the committee about how we can best provide them the information they require,” Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, wrote in an email to McClatchy.

She added that the White House would continue working with lawmakers “to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and the world.”

Hayden declined to say why the administration doesn’t plan to provide a witness for the hearing.

The office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the subcommittee chairman, said it would have no comment. Durbin was expected to proceed with the session next week whether or not an administration witness attends.

Obama’s targeted killing program has come under increased examination amid charges by some human and civil rights groups and others that it violates international and U.S. law, has claimed hundreds of civilian lives and has provoked intense popular anger that has helped al Qaida and other violent extremist groups recruit new radicals.

Earlier this month, McClatchy published a review of classified U.S. intelligence reports showing that scores of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other militants.” That finding contrasts with the administration’s contentions that they’ve only targeted identified senior leaders of al Qaida and associated forces planning imminent violent attacks on the United States.

On Friday, 10 civil and human rights groups wrote a joint letter to Obama urging him to make public the secret Justice Department legal opinions underpinning targeted killings, ensure adequate congressional oversight and create mechanisms for tracking and responding to civilian casualties.

C. Dixon Osburne, director of the law and security program at Human Rights First, one of the letter’s signatories, said the administration’s decision not to send a witness to the hearing ran counter to Obama’s transparency pledge.

“The president made pretty clear in the State of the Union (speech) that the administration owed Congress and the public more transparency about its drone operations. Sending a witness to the hearing would be a good step in that direction. Not sending a witness keeps the targeted killing program cloaked in secrecy,” he said.

The administration contends that the strikes comply with domestic and international laws, including the laws of war, and are conducted only after rigorous reviews by top officials. Officials say U.S. drone attacks have crippled al Qaida’s core leadership and undermined its ability to conduct complex attacks against U.S. and other targets. It also says that civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare.”

Nearly 4,000 people have been killed in some 420 targeted killing operations since the first U.S. drone strike was conducted under the Bush administration in October 2001.

About 90 percent have been staged by the CIA, the vast majority since Obama took office, against suspected extremists in Pakistan’s tribal area bordering Afghanistan, according to Micah Zenko, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent policy institute. The rest were launched by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command in Yemen and by the latter in Somalia.

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